31 December 2008

Looking forward... and backward.

Right then, so it's the end of the year. Looking back at 97 or so posts in 2008. Better than 2007, certainly, but not as good pro rata as 2006 - after all, the blog only started in Sep '06. At the risk of sounding like Nu Labor I'm going to set myself the modest target of 2 posts a week on average in 2009 - that makes about 104 posts. If I do better than that then great. 

There'll also be not one, but two 'side blogs' on the go in 2009. I'm pleased to say that Brother Typewriter's Golf Ball will be making a much more serious effort in the new year after a lack of posts for 8 months. That goddamn Typewriter has just been too busy making music to write about it... well, better than being too busy writing about music to make it, I guess. 

I'm even more pleased to announce the launch of Groscope, an offshoot of giroscope devoted to allotment gardening. For all you kids out there who just want to read about compost, digging and stolen marrows. Enjoy. 

Important things to watch out for in politics and economics in 2009? At the risk of inviting ridicule 12 months from (or even earlier), I offer a few predictions: 

  • unemployment will rise to well above 3 million - I think by 2010 we are going to be looking at more like 4 million. The full extent of this slump has still not been realised. 
  • House prices are going to bottom out at about 45% lower than their 2007 peak - we're looking at about a 20% fall in 2009 alone. 
  • There won't be an election in 2009 - I just don't think Brown has enough balls (not Ed Balls) to do it. But equally, he won't be daft enough to fan the speculative flames and get burned a second time. That means I can put off my election prediction until this time next year...
One last thing, and perhaps the most important - actually, certainly the most important. Is Barack Obama going to be any good or merely the latest crushing disappointment after the likes of Carter and Clinton? It really is too soon to tell at this stage so I will offer no predictions here. We watch and we learn. 

Right, that's enough for this year. If you are reading this before midnight tonight, that's very sad... grab a beer and some company instead. Unless you're someone I'm celebrating with, in which case why aren't you drinking the nice mulled wine I've made? 

30 December 2008

Yet more MicroCrap for Christmas - Office 2007 sucks a big one

I hate to be the bringer of bad news over the Christmas period (the Israelis are doing quite enough of that for all of us), but... Microsoft Office 2007 (which I picked up fairly cheap with some money left over after the festivities) is, at first glance, absolute cack.

Why? Because they've redesigned the menus completely. It's like an 8 year-old kid's idea of what the menu system should look like.

Take Excel - previously a reasonably easy to use program. I'm currently doing a simple spreadsheet and I want to insert an extra row. On Excel 2003 or 2000: easy. Just go to the insert menu. On Excel 2007: what the f***? The insert tab brings up a whole load of boxes. 'Tables', 'illustrations', 'charts', 'links', 'text'. Very useful for someone writing a Word document or a presentation. But what about the basic spreadsheet functions?

I hit the question mark to get help. It turns out you have to go to Home -> Cells -> Insert.

What the f***?

So to insert something I have to go to the Home menu.

Where do I have to go to get my money back? The "Bill Gates's ass" menu?

Who designed this menu system? John McCain?

Now I know that a lot of this is pretty arbitrary and if I was learning Excel 2007 from scratch with no knowledge of previous versions then I'd be OK. But one could say that about almost any redesign. The main point is that I can't see any way in which this redesign makes me more productive, whereas I can see a hell of a lot of ways in which it makes life temporarily a pain in the ass. Also, Microsoft are pretty Stalinist about making people do things their way. Here's a paragraph marked important that comes up if you type 'what happened to the File menu' in the help section:

"No option is currently available to switch the user interface back to the File menu, toolbars, and commands as they appeared in earlier versions of these Microsoft Office programs."

Well, f*** you too, sir. Imagine if this had happened with the shitty default file search function in Windows XP or the equally shitty default file manager options (view files as huge icons, don't show file extensions, etc.) The computer would have been out of my window in 30 minutes.

I feel like Dr "Bones" McCoy in my favourite Star Trek movie, The Motion Picture:

It's like working in a goddamn computer centre... I know engineers.... they just love to change things.

Thank f*** for OpenOffice 3.0 which, 95% of the time, is a very capable product which fulfills all my office-related needs. I've only got hold of MS Office for the other 5% - documents which people send me from time to time which just don't work properly with OpenOffice. It's getting rarer but it still happens occasionally. But given the crappy redesign, I don't think I'll be using MS Office as much more than a glorified file-reader.

This was my first taste of an application designed for Vista - I've been pretty militant about avoiding all contact with Vista and will be sticking with XP for music-making (and increasingly Linux for other stuff) for as long as possible, even though it's not sold on most PCs any more. And if the same idiots who've redesigned Office have been working on Vista, f*** that as well. Jesus, if I didn't have so much accumulated expertise in PC music software and zero expertise in the Mac alternative, I'd maybe even consider a Macintosh next time the upgrade comes round. And believe me, that's like Simon Heffer saying he's planning to vote Labour - a fundamental switch of allegiance. I just don't see why I should have to put up with these cretins at Microsoft f***ing up my life.

Stuff the lot of them.

Right, then... a happier post tomorrow to see out 2008. Probably.

24 December 2008

Happy Xmas you homophobic f***head

Even worse than usual crap from the Pope this year... apparently, saving humanity from homosexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.

If you're a Catholic, and you agree with this stuff, you're an idiot. If you're a Catholic and you don't agree with it, then maybe it's time to ask yourself what you're doing in the organisation. If the huge majority of followers of Catholicism - or any religion - just upped sticks and left, the religion would collapse, or be reduced to an irrelevant fringe phenomenon. These guys (and they are guys, all of them) only have any power because the rank-and-file turn up for services every week. So stop going, and see how long they last.

It's possible that the Pope may be in the employ of Richard Dawkins. Certainly, by making statements like this, he's playing into the hands of the atheist vanguard. Maybe Ricky D just gives him the most ludicrous quotes possible and Benedict just goes and repeats them verbatim... I certainly can't see any more plausible reason for someone to come out with this crap in the 21st century.

So I won't be saying happy Christmas to any readers. Because that could be the slippery slope to believing shit like this.

The most appropriate wish for this year's festive season? Be careful out there.

15 December 2008

BSG Season 4: This is a Live Killer

I haven't reviewed much TV on giroscope for over a year - largely because I haven't had much time to watch that much - but for the last few years I've made some time around Xmas to watch the latest season of Battlestar Galactica

Every season so far has been excellent, and I'm very pleased to report that Season 4  is probably the best yet. This time it's only 10 episodes compared with 20 each in Seasons 2 and 3; the original Season 4 has been split into 2 seasons, because the writers' strike delayed production. Season 5 (also 10 episodes) will air on Sky 1 starting this January. Because I refuse to buy anything from the Murdoch empire, I won't be seeing season 5 - legally - until late 2009. But that's OK. I can wait. 

I think BSG works better with the 10-episode format. I genuinely believe it's almost impossible for TV shows to turn out more than about 10 to 15 good 45-minute (i.e. 1 hour with adverts) episodes of a series in one year, no matter how many people they have working on the show. Quantity seems to trade off against quality every time. BSG Seasons 2 and 3 each consisted of about 7 or 8 classic episodes, 5 or 6 very good ones and the rest were OK filler. Only about 10 episodes max in each series were crucial to the plot. By contrast, Season 1 was only 13 episodes and featured virtually no filler at all. Like Season 1, Season 4 cuts the extraneous stuff almost completely - there's a rather half-baked subplot about a Baltar religious cult to pass a couple of idle minutes in some of the episodes, but other than that, this is all meat and no potatoes. 

I won't give away any plot spoilers (the Baltar stuff is no spoiler, believe me) because you need to watch this season yourselves. But I'm just really pleased that, to use a phrase I picked up from Steve's Very True Things blog, BSG has in no way "jumped the shark", whatever some of the numbskull reviewers on amazon.co.uk might tell you. In fact, it may well be that the best is yet to come. More on this same time next year. 

"Mad[e]off" with your money... ha ha.

It's the financial fraud of the century... and the last century too. 

Fraudster Bernard Madoff (fantastic name if you just put an 'e' in the middle!) has conned some of the world's leading investors (e.g. Nicola Horlick) out of $50 billion by running a giant pyramid scheme... using new investors' money to pay out to existing investors. The scheme was signed off by the US equivalent of the FSA as legal and above board. 

At this rate, the whole future of private enterprise is in question. Oh happy day! Except if you invested with this bastard, of course. Some of the top names did... Santander, HSBC, the UK's very own RBS.

The most amusing thing is that some of these fund managers who invested with Madoff (Horlick is a good example) have been hailed as geniuses for the last decade at least. Now we find out for sure what many of us have long suspected... they're a bunch of imbeciles. Welcome to contemporary capitalism. The whole thing really is falling apart around our ears at the moment. About time too. 

13 December 2008

ALERT: economic ignoramus in the German Treasury (or perhaps not?)

I'm a couple of days late blogging on this one but it's been pretty mental this week and well... better late than never. 

German finance minister Peer Steinbruck has criticised the UK's macroeconomic policy of fiscal expansion as "crass Keynesianism".

Reading the BBC piece on Steinbruck's critique it's hard to avoid the conclusion that - unless he's been horribly misrepresented - this guy is an economic ignoramus who should not be let anywhere near any government department, much less the finance department. However, he may have been misreported - see below. 

The BBC article makes Steinbruck sound like the kind of imbecile who was running US economic policy between 1929 and 1932 - when the world slipped into the biggest depression of the 20th century. More recently, he sounds like an adviser to former UK chancellor Geoffrey Howe, whose 1981 budget turned a downturn into a slump by contracting the economy during a recession. If we listen to people like this (or indeed to George Osborne, who jumped on the bandwagon to say the recent VAT cut was wrong) we are totally sunk. Fortunately neither Steinbruck nor Osborne have any credible alternative plan so they're unlikely to convince many people - hopefully. 

Now, certainly the details of the UK's fiscal expansion plan are open to criticism. The VAT cut will be less effective than a spending boost at stimulating demand because some people will just save the extra money rather than go out and spend it.  But only an idiot would disagree that we need some kind of stimulus to the economy now. The most important critique (as voiced by Paul Krugman) is that the stimulus ain't even halfway big enough

There's also a spirited riposte to Peer Steinbruck from Krugman here - which also contains a reference to a longer interview with Steinbruck in Newsweek. Actually, reading this, Steinbruck doesn't come across nearly as badly - maybe he has been horribly misreported by the BBC after all. According to Newsweek, Steinbruck supports the €31 billion German stimulus package - his main point is that we are in rather uncharted territory here and there is no magic "rescue plan". Which is true - I'd agree with that. But by the same token, this doesn't mean that the best course of action is "do nothing". In particular, a co-ordinated European reflationary package will be more effective than a patchwork reflation by some European governments but not others. In the end, the most serious critique of Steinbruck is that he's opposed to co-ordinated action like that - running the risk that the failure of the fiscal stimulus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

08 December 2008

Stansted disruption: heroes on two fronts

Absolutely sterling work by Plane Stupid today at Stansted airport - on two fronts. One, managing to draw attention to the fairly serious inconsistency between the UK government's tough long-term CO2 emissions targets and its obsession with expanding low-cost air travel exponentially. Two, exposing the security arrangements at Stansted as totally lax.

For years now, air travellers have had to contend with a panoply of poorly-thought out security measures which have vastly extended check-in times and resulted in good business for companies selling water bottles airside. These have been high visibility to say the least, and undoubtedly designed to make it look as if the govt was doing "something important" about terrorism. But meanwhile, a group of around 60 protesters with very limited equipment was able to break through the airport's perimeter fence and camp on the runway. Some security system.

Of course, strengthening the perimeter fence would cost substantial amounts of money, whereas enforcing rules about liquids just costs passenger time and patience. That's probably why we get more of the latter than the former.

Really, the country would be run a lot better if we had a lot more protesters. We're gonna have a lot more unemployed very soon, so I think a new branch of the New Deal should be started - the protest option. The government pays you money to find important stuff to protest about. A new form of public service... the DWP should get working on this proposal at once.

30 November 2008

Does the Damien Green arrest indicate a police state?

An intriguing question. And one to which we've had no shortage of answers.

The 'police state' argument was put most forcefully by Tony Benn on Channel 4 News on Friday night. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer today rejected Benn's notion that "Britain has become a police state" because in a real police state (like Zimabawe) he apparently wouldn't have been able to make that accusation without being arrested. That's debatable - the police don't always operate in such an obvious manner as that - but in any case it's a distortion of what Tony Benn was saying, which is that police arresting and searching the offices of an opposition front bench spokesperson is something that tends to happen in a police state. And Tony is right on that front... but I think the main issue here is more complex than the accusations and denials of 'police state Britain' suggest.

As I understand it, Damian Green was arrested due to suspicions that he was revealing leaked material which compromised national security. (The precise charge was some kind of arcane 18th century legislation regarding "suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office" but that surely must be a front for something deeper - if it isn't then the arrest really is a complete farce and the police deserve ridicule.)

"National security" is a vague term at best, but let's suppose Green was breaching the Official Secrets Act by revealing classified information. If that's the case then the police were acting correctly in arresting him. Parliamentary privilege, the special dispensation which offers immunity from slander, does not offer immunity from prosecution for breaches of the Official Secrets Act. Otherwise the Act would be meaningless as anyone who wanted to reveal a secret could just ask their MP to do it in the House of Commons and, as Hansard is a publicly available record, the official secret would no longer be secret.

If Green was not breaching the Official Secrets Act then it's unclear what offence he committed - or indeed why he was arrested. Leaking non-classified information is not an offence, and neither is embarrassing the government (fortunately).

If Green was breaching the OSA, it's not the police that are at fault (although the manner of Green's arrest was ludicrously over-the-top) - but, rather, the draconian nature of the OSA itself. This reactionary and outdated Act - which affects MPs as much as anybody else - is a bigger threat to the operation of democracy in the UK than any over-zealous police chief. And that, I think, is the issue which opponents of Green's arrest on all sides of Parliament would be best focusing their attention on.

29 November 2008


It's too early on Saturday morning - but I often find this a productive time to work. No emails coming in, the Mo Dutta show on Radio 2.... what more could you want? (Cup of tea? We can sort that.)

Just been knocked sideways by the idiocy of the 'thought for the day' slot at 6.15am (you should be able to hear it if you listen again - I think Mo has an unbelievably long show, from 4 to 8am). For those not familiar with the Radio 2 early morning religious slots, they are a hilariously toned down, Ikea flatpack version of the Radio 4 'Thought for the Day' - "designed not to be too intellectually taxing" would be a nice way of putting it. Anyway there was this chap on who was a Christian minister of some denomination - I didn't catch which one - and he said something along the lines of the following: living involves innumerable acts of faith. When we get in a plane we take it on "faith" that there's enough fuel in the tanks to land safely. When we drop our kids off at the school gate we take it on "faith" that they will be safe until the end of the school day... etc. And, apparently, faith in God is 'a logical extension' of this.


That's the worst argument I've ever heard for anything, ever. Richard Dawkins - or even Christopher Hitchens - would have had this guy for breakfast. 

When I get in a plane and assume that I'm going to make it through the journey alive (which actually I don't do - I have an irrational fear of flying. But never mind...) my confidence in the plane's safe passage - or the confidence I would have if I had a brain - is based on the fact that a plane company which experienced a high proportion of fatal accidents wouldn't be in business very long. Similarly, if I had kids, I'd assume that they would be safe at school, or else I could sue the school's ass. It doesn't always pay to be trusting - just look at the kids who were in care in Jersey, for example - but confidence in these situations is based on a rational assessment of the reliability of our institutions to do the job, whether they be market-based or political. 

Thus, it's no kind of "faith" at all. And it's nothing to do with religious faith, where the believer is asked to believe a load of stuff (for want of a better word) on the basis of no evidence other than the evidence offered up by the people who have a vested interest in you believing it (i.e. the church authorities, whose authority - and financial standing - is boosted, the more their congregation goes up.) 

I don't just believe that the plane will get me there safely because Ryanair, Easyjet or whoever tell me so. In fact I believe that the airlines are a load of bullshitters and I don't trust a word they say. So why believe in God because (for example) the Pope tells you to?

If the religious authorities want to increase their intellectual grip on the country they're going to have to come up with something better than this tosh. But it did provide a useful 20 minutes' diversion for me. 

24 November 2008

The PBR: 'Big Play' or 'small action'?

Back in my college days, the best part of 20 years ago, there was an arcade game in the common room which was originally a wrestling game (although it got loaded up with a different game every month or so - none of them wrestling, sadly) - with a joystick and two buttons for each player. One was a (small) button saying 'Small Action'. The other was a VERY large button saying 'Big Play'. This seems an appropriate metaphor for today's Pre-Budget Report. So, has Alistair Darling delivered a 'Big Play' or merely a 'small action'? Or, has he in fact thrown in the towel altogether? 

Temporary tax cuts make a lot of sense in terms of stimulating demand - provided that infrastructure spending is ramped up meanwhile, as generating additional employment through public spending will probably be more effective in getting us through an economic slump than tax measures. A VAT cut is reasonably sensible, although some of the commodities that the poorest people are most likely to buy - e.g. food - are zero-rated, and so will actually be relatively more expensive relative to other goods than they are at the moment. 

The proposal for a 45% income tax rate after the next election to help (a little bit) towards balancing the government books in the long run is very welcome, and perhaps marks the death of the faux-Tory mutant known as 'New Labour' and its replacement with 'Newer Labour' - which seems to be a closer relative of Old Labour than its immediate predecessor. Which is no bad thing. The extinction of the legacy of Tony Blair (and of Gordon Brown's own past self) is limited, but essential. 

But the £12 billion fiscal stimulus from the VAT cut, and the other smaller measures on the table, are really pretty small beer. They'll help a bit but we'll need a lot more in either higher spending or lower tax if we're gonna get out of a major slump without experiencing the kind of mass unemployment that wrecked huge swathes of the economy in the 1980s. 

I still don't know if the government has really grasped the gravity of the situation. Its growth projections for 2010 are wildly optimistic, and out of line with all independent forecasts. In all likelihood the economy will still be contracting in early 2010, at least. But I guess these numbers can always be revised later, and the stimulus can be boosted in the March Budget if need be. 

The borrowing figures are historically high, but then it's a historically big recession, and it's gonna hit the UK harder than most because we rely a lot on financial services. This isn't ideal but the government is making the best of a bad job. The Tory plan of just relying on automatic fiscal stabilisers and funding tax cuts through cutting spending isn't a stimulus package; it's just more of the same crap they were pushing between 1997 and 2005. Osborne was shit in the opposition post-PBR response. The Tories must be crapping themselves now... if polls this week show Labour ahead in the polls (or at least even pegging) election fever is gonna mount. And this time, Brown would be a fool to bottle out. 

So it was a 'small action' but with scope for more down the line if need be. However, Vincent Cable hit the nail on the head pretty well on Channel 4 News tonight (as so often - why is this man not leading the Lib Dems? They would probably be at 30% or more in the polls if he was.) The main priority is to get banks lending to businesses - not necessarily at 2007 levels (that may be impossible) but at much higher levels than what's happening at the moment, which is feeble. If the govt needs to go for full nationalisation of a major bank or two to do that, then go for it. A modest fiscal stimulus ain't gonna do jack if the entire credit system remains seized up despite the re-capitalisation of Lloyds TSB/HBOS/RBS. 

18 November 2008

Labour now SURPASSING 2005 levels of popularity(?)

Tonight's Evening Standard - a craphouse of a paper to be sure, but I just had to buy it...

Labour have closed to within 3 points in the latest MORI poll. Labour 37, Tories 40, Lib Dems 12 (12! That's f***ing useless. How long can Clegg last?)

At only 3 points down, Labour would actually have a reasonable chance of squeaking through with an overall majority - due to the insane bias of the electoral system, as I wrote in the last post. 

Gordon Brown must really be starting to fancy his chances now. What price a spring 2009 election? If Labour is level pegging or better by February, it's got to be on the cards. 

And if Tony Blair is anywhere out there - remember when you got 35% of the vote in 2005? Gordon might end up beating you. Ha ha. 

Right, that's enough of the polls for a bit. 

12 November 2008

Labour now back to 2005 levels of popularity

Hello any Blairites still out there. Remember when yer man limped his party home with 35% of the vote in the '05 election? And remember when you all said Gordon Brown was going to be bloody awful, we'd miss Tony when he was gone, etc.? And remember the several months of '08 when we were agreeing with you? 

What a difference a financial crisis makes. OK, so the Sunday Telegraph had a poll with Labour on only 30% - but no-one reads that except 'Van Patten' who sometimes posts on here, and he's a mentalist. Lookee at The Times yesterday and we find a Populus poll with the following numbers: 

Labour - 35%
Tories - 41%
Lib Dems - 16%

That's Labour back on 35% - and possibly with further to climb. The difference from '05, of course, is that the Tories are on 41%, not 33%. It's likely - although not certain - that if the country voted like that at the general election, Cameron would have a small majority. But any further tightening and the current bias towards Labour in the electoral system means we are definitely into hung parliament territory. 

Or even, the nightmare scenario for the Tories of Labour being perhaps 3% down in the popular vote and still winning a majority... that's the insanity of first-past-the-post for you, and time was when the Conservatives gave a rat's ass about that kind of thing. There were a lot of people talking about the 'elective dictatorship' in the mid-70s when Harold Wilson had a Commons majority (just) on 39% of the vote. Fast forward to a govt elected with 35% of the vote and we hear... not a peep out of the Tories. Crazy. 

And even the Lib Dems seem pretty quiet about electoral reform these days. They're too busy trying to cut taxes and spending. Monetarism 30 years too late, guys! Get with the program! Seriously, does anybody know what planet Nick Clegg is on? This guy has to be the biggest disappointment as a political leader since David Owen, at least. (Ming Campbell wasn't a disappointment because no-one expected him to be any good in the first place.) Vince Cable should lead a (metaphorical) assassination attempt on Clegg, because otherwise the Lib Dems are gonna be back to a complete rump party with a handful of seats and even less influence than they have now. Sad, very sad. 

07 November 2008

Meanwhile, back in "the old country"...

(i.e. the UK, rather than Ireland, in this particular case)... we have good news and bad news (depending on which side of the fence you sit. 

Firstly, an against-the-odds victory for Labour in the Glenrothes by-election. Big majority over the SNP. Brown understandably bigging it up - "a vote of confidence in our handling of the economic crisis", etc. And I would argue, to an extent, it is. 

But there might be a bit more going on here: there are now 2 ways to make a protest vote in a Scottish by-election. You can protest against the UK govt or against the Scottish govt, which is a minority SNP administration. There may have been some of the latter going on (although if people wanted to make a double protest vote, why did the Tories and the Lib Dems both do utterly lamely?)

Secondly, that Labour won a by-election in a safe Labour seat doesn't mean they are suddenly favourites to win a general election. Labour is still a minimum of 8 points down in the national vote. If it had been a big win in a Labour or Tory marginal, now that would have been a big story. 

Still, one senses the momentum is with Labour at the moment. Brown has been looking happy to be in the job for the first time since summer '07. He knows there is a fighting chance, and he will enjoy the fight.

The downside of this, of course, is that it reduces the amount of flak that Labour takes for many of its crappier policies, of which one of the most shit-stained is ID cards. The rather duff Jacqui Smith was at it this morning, saying that "people can't wait for the introduction of ID cards". Yep, and turkeys can't wait for Christmas either. The sad thing is, given that opinion polls show a substantial proportion of the country in favour of this crazy money-waster, she's probably telling the truth. But hey, just because there are a lot of idiots around who want to spend a great deal of money on eradicating our basic freedoms with an ineffectual (because easily forged!) measure doesn't make it right. 

There should be a referendum on this policy (it's a fair cop - I'd abide by the result.) There should be a referendum on a national DNA database (introduced in one fell swoop for everyone rather than the present policy of just taking DNA from people charged with an offence, even if eventually found innocent). Hell, there should be a referendum on a lot of things. Until then, NO2ID is our best bet - please give generously. 

05 November 2008

Brilliant summary of why Obama won

Ah... sore head this afternoon. Up until almost 5am, and one too many vodka martinis.

I've been a critic of BBC North America editor Justin Webb at several points during the election campaign, but he correctly identified an excellent potted summary of the four main reasons Obama won - from the surprising source of Daniel Finkelstein at The Times. Do read it - it's here.

I think this is probably the best I've ever seen Finkelstein write. Maybe, like Peter Oborne and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, he is becoming that rare and treasured thing - a right-wing commentator with a brain that he actually uses.

Good Morning America!

I'm just up and making myself a cup of "Good Morning America" - y'all want some?

Thank f*** America did the right thing. A popular vote margin of about 5% - well within the margin of error of the projections from recent opinion polls. Maybe people will believe the polls a bit more next time. What an amazing contrast with Bush's election in 2000 - whilst there will no doubt be some accusations of theft going around, those making the accusations will look pretty laughable.

Some quick thoughts on where the US goes from here:

McCain's concession speech sounds like the "nasty button" has been switched off - I guess he realised there was no point wallowing in vitriol at this point. "The failure is mine", he says - yes, but not for the reasons he thinks. He ran a hard-right campaign to appeal to a Republican base which certainly came out to vote, but he couldn't capture enough swing voters to come anywhere near Obama in terms of vote share - especially not with Sarah Palin on the ticket.

The Senate results look like there are going to be 41 Republicans - theoretically enough to block legislation by 'filibuster'. However, if a legislative programme with popular support (e.g. health care reform) is blocked by those Senate Republicans despite being passed in other branches of govt, there is a high probability that the Republicans will get their asses kicked in the 2010 midterm elections - with several more Senate seats last contested in 2004 up for grabs, a further shift to the Democrats looks likely. The House of Representatives is wildly Democratic.

Just heard on the news that McCain described Sarah Palin as one of the "best campaigners he's ever seen"(?!) - maybe he's been working for the Democrats all along.

Will be very interesting to see whether the Republicans do a "post-1997 Tories" and degenerate into an extremist rump party. I certainly hope so, although they may have a bit more sense. If you meet a Republican, push "Palin for 2012" as hard as you can at every opportunity.

Election turnout 64% - the highest since 1964 in the US, but still seems low compared with many countries. I wonder if the denominator includes adults who can't vote: prisoners and felons for example (of which there are a huge number)?


2.30 am: that's all folks. Ohio just called called for Obama. Given that pretty much all the states to be called so far have gone according to most projections, I can't see Obama losing this. I'm following the election on the BBC site and FiveThreeEight updates. Watched 5 minutes of live footage but Dimbleby was so pants that I went back to just following the text updates.

Anyway, congratulations to America for making the right choice. You may have saved the world.
I think I'm gonna watch my DVD of Inland Empire to celebrate.

04 November 2008

live: watching and waiting

Just coming up to the close of the first polls. BBC coverage looks incredibly dull - haven't they pensioned the persistently awful David Dimbleby off yet? Stories of voting machines breaking down in areas of Virginia with high ethnic minority populations - hopefully not decisive but worrying all the same.

Looks pretty dull, so I'll come back to you in a couple of hours or so.

03 November 2008

Please let it be "Good Morning America" on Wednesday

Well, after what seems like the majority of this year's blog posts, we're only 26 hours away from the US election night coverage. I'll be staying up for the duration, maybe with a vodka martini in my hand, probably writing the odd blog post. This is a long post, as we're at a turning point in world history. Turning points make me nervous... I get verbal diarreoaha. (A word I can't spell). Sorry kids.

I was going to be at a party in Oxford tomorrow night but work pressures make it inadvisable for me to take the required amount of time out of my schedule to get over there and back again (really sorry, Chris). In fact I'm probably being a damn fool staying up to watch it tomorrow night - but f*** it. This is history in the making.

Democratic presidential victories have been thin on the ground in my lifetime. I was born about a month after the disastrous landslide defeat of the excellent George McGovern by the crook Richard Nixon in 1972, and was too young to remember anything about Jimmy Carter's victory in '76. There then followed three crushing defeats. It was the 1980s, and by definition, the height of Bad Politics (and Fashion).

I got luckier in 1992 with Bill Clinton; I remember frantically trying to finish an essay late at night (this was a very common occurence in Oxford, almost as common as being whacked out of my brain), I turned on my little black and white CRT TV, and there the bastard was. Difficult to tell a 'red state' from a 'blue state' in black and white (and does anybody else get confused by the fact the blue party is the 'left' party? Who came up with this lunacy?) but I knew from the commentary that Clinton had done it. That, plus the stupid Republican American woman (that old Guess Who song just came into my brain - "American Woman" - some nice guitar distortion there, folks) crying in the college bar. Her misery was our ecstasy - at least until it transpired that Clinton was barely more able to get major legislation through Congress than was Jimmy Carter, and while he managed to get re-elected (which Carter sadly didn't, despite being up against a lunatic with Alzheimer's) he spent most of his time passing crap legislation given to him by Newt Gingrich, and getting impeached. OK so he was there, which meant that a Republican fascist (or Ross Perot) wasn't there, but it was still a big disppointment.

Then we had 2000 - perhaps the biggest downer of all time. A denial of democracy - a stolen election. Banana Republic, USA - not just A Department Store. Al Gore - cast out into the nether regions ( where he eventually returned as a remarkably effective environmental campaigner). The "child-president" as Hunter S Thompson called him (shit, Hunter - why did you pull a gun on yourself, you stupid f***wit? You would have been bloody LOVING it by now, mate. It's a drag being an atheist 'cos I can't say "hope you're up there watching all this unfold" with a straight face...) GWB - Grand Dubya Bullshit. The plundering of America's assets for defense contractors and the super-rich. Environmental disaster. ANOTHER stolen election in 2004. OK, John Kerry was no way the greatest presidential candidate ever, but what in F***'s name was George Bush? a human equivalent of those polystyrene wotsits that come in couriered packages. Cheap filler for others to exploit. Jeez, in November '04 things looked fuckin lame x 2 million... Hunter, on 2nd thoughts I can understand why you pulled the trigger, mate.

But then, just when Not Expected That Much, events took a good turn in America. Iraq was the Vietnam Mark II that so many of us had predicted. Bloody awful for any of the poor bastards from Iraq itself, Britain or America that were out there, but good news for US politics. Bush's 2nd term fell apart in ways that made Clinton and Reagan's 2nd terms look like perfection itself. In 2006 the Democrats recaptured Congress and the Republicans disowned Dubya. Predictions were that any likely Republican challenger would get his (and it always was a 'he'...) ass kicked come the Nov 08 presidential election.

Then, in 2008, events played out damn weirdly. Firstly, who's this sophisticated young punk from Illinois challenging Hillary Clinton's husband-given right to the Democratic nomination? Step forward Barack Obama and the most powerful grassroots campaign in known history, outstripping even the gigantic efforts of McGovern in '72. Building on the inspirational groundwork of the Howard Dean '04 campaign, which failed, but which showed the way forward in terms of building campaign finance and momentum through millions of small donations rather than relying solely on huge handouts from big corporates. It took months and months, but Clinton's more traditional campaign was beaten off, and Obama went forward to the national stage.

Meanwhile, in the GOP ("Grand Old Party", apparently - surely the most pretentious party nickname in the world?) strange things were storing. A genuinely charismatic dingbat called Mike Huckabee made the early running in New Hampshire before being swept aside by John McCain, who, in mid-07, had looked all washed up. The brief window of apparent success for the Iraq "surge" strategy which McCain had backed all the way, temporarily transformed him into some kind of apparent visionary and there he was, winning primary after primary, with Huckabee in a fairly distant second and the others - Mitt Romney, ex-actor Fred Thompson, the laughably inept Rudy Guiliani - off the map.

I got a bit bored with the contest in the summer - between the end of the primaries and the conventions - because no-one over here seemed to be covering the damn thing anyway. But I came back with a jolt when Sarah Palin got the V-P nomination for the Reps. The initial surge in the polls for the McCain/Palin ticket made a lot of people over in the UK very scared and for a couple of weeks it looked as if history was about to repeat itself - and we were in for another Ronald Reagan style triumph of reactionary fears over progressive hopes. Fortunately, normality ("normalcy?") reasserted itself as we discovered that even in the USA, being an ignorant gun-toting fascist is no automatic guarantee of success in a post-Nixon, post-Reagan, post-Bush landscape. (And that was just John McCain...) The more Sarah Palin was revealed to be a fucking MORON, the more ecstatic I was. The more John McCain came to resemble Michael Foot's evil Yankee twin, the more happy I felt.

So here we are, on the threshold of one of three options:

1) a new dawn for America. A bit like what they got with FDR, got to some extent (although with the huge F***-off mistake of Vietnam with JFK/LBJ), and should have got with Carter - (if he had had half a clue about how to run his administration without pissing off just about everybody in Congress who was supposed to have been on his side). And like they were never going to get with Clinton.
2) Jimmy Carter Mark II. I'll expand on what I mean by this in future posts if Obama really does win, but briefly: I think his biggest danger is that he ends up not being able to pull enough strings to effect major policy changes in the notoriously sclerotic American political system. The worst scenario would have a demoralised and distant Obama having his ass kicked by Huckabee or, god help us, Palin, in 2012... kind of a sick repeat of 1980... but let's not worry about that for now.
3) Civil war in the US. This is the most extreme what awaits if McCain somehow contrives to steal the election despite being 6 or 7 points down in the popular vote. More likely of course is that FOX news comes up with some conservative academic to explain that there's been a massive "Bradley effect", there are a few demonstrations in New York City, some people get shot and the US resigns itself to President McMugabe and Vice President Michael Palin.

Let's hope for all our stakes it's option 1. If you're a US citizen and you're reading this it probably means you were enough in agreement with the basic thesis presented here to make it to the end, which means:


(see, I've even color-coded it for you. And used your spelling of 'colour' - I'm a considerate chap. )

As George Clooney once directed:

Good night, and good luck.

30 October 2008

Ross/Brand: A tsunami in a teacup

Extraordinary goings-on at the BBC... Jonathan Ross suspended for 3 months without pay, Russell Brand out the door.

Because some rude messages (included in the broadcast on 18 October) were left on Andrew Sachs's answerphone concerning the fact that Brand had sex with Sach's 23-year-old grand-daughter. Well, nobody's going to condone swearing into people's answerphones on BBC radio - Sachs was pissed off and rightly so. But Brand and Ross both admitted they'd overstepped the mark and apologised, Sachs accepted the apology, and perhaps we would have thought the matter would have ended there - maybe with a fine for the presenters.

Instead, one of Radio 2's flagship presenters is gone for 3 months (at least it'll save the Beeb some money as he's grossly overpaid, but that's an argument for another day) and another popular show is off the air for good.

And why? Basically because the Mail on Sunday got hold of the story and ran it ten days after the show was recorded. These desperate fuckers at the Mail, who are in all probability far more depraved than Russell Brand could ever dream of, sell their filth - far more disgusting and warped than anything on Radio 2 - to an equally desperate audience.

There were 1,585 complaints received by the BBC after the Mail on Sunday story ran. How many complaints were received by the BBC before the story ran in the Mail? TWO.

The whole thing is a f***ing joke which once again proves that BBC director-general Mark Thompson is a government patsy put in to reduce the Beeb to a compliant zombie institution in the wake of the Hutton report in 2003. Your licence fee is now being used to pleasure Daily Mail readers... I wish Brand and Ross had attacked the gutter press in their statements to the media after the story broke.

Have we really progressed any since the days of Mary Whitehouse? Doesn't feel much like it.

26 October 2008

364 vs 16

In 1981, 364 economists wrote to The Times to condemn the Thatcher Government's lunatic monetarise policies.

In 2008, 16 economists have written to The Sunday Telegraph to condemn Alistair Darling's plans to spend his way out of the recession.

They couldn't even reach 5% of the 1981 figure... it's a sad day for right-wing protest.

24 October 2008

Vote-rigging and civil disorder: welcome to John McMugabe's America

Some very good news for Barack Obama today on 538. With one (rogue) exception, the national tracking polls look awful for McCain, and the state-level polls look even worse.

With the Republican campaign increasingly resembling Michael Foot's ill-fated 1983 UK venture (and indeed John McCain is much the same age as Foot was back then), there has been speculation that if the polls are wildly wrong, riots could break out - or worse.

If there is an upset, right-wingers will undoubtedly try to blame it on the so-called "Bradley effect" - white voters not voting for Obama on race grounds, after saying they would vote for him in opinion polls. This despite the fact that there is considerable evidence that the Bradley effect has been negligible in any race since 2000, at least.

A far more likely explanation for the upset is systematic and widespread voter fraud - particularly in key states where the Secretary of State is a Republican - which I've discussed before. If that explanation is accepted, brace yourself for widespread civil disobedience - National Guard on the streets, protesters being shot and gassed, that sort of thing. A recreation of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, in other words.

Great blog post here (also mentioned in the Telegraph article linked above) arguing for mass non-violent civil disobedience in the event of McCain election theft. Hard to disagree - hopefully people will have learned from the mistakes of 2000 and 2004, where Bush stole the election twice.

But the only problem is that the US police and National Guard will turn a non-violent protest violent pretty damned quick. As Alex Jones among others has pointed out, America is a police state now. Which may mean that things get ugly very quickly. Although, given that even the Republicans are predicting that the Democrats will keep control (and indeed extend their majority) in both the Senate and the House, McCain and Palin wouldn't be able to get any radical right-wing legislation through anyway - so the impetus for civil disorder is somewhat diminished. The revolution will probably have to wait until the vote-rigging is even more pronounced - which, in the absence of voting reform, becomes more and more likely the longer the Republicans are in office.

23 October 2008

This isn't TV (it's Youtube.) He isn't William Shatner (but actually he is.)

With apologies to Dave Gedge and the wedding present, you have to see this... from the increasingly bizarre William Shatner Youtube channel, here is Shatner, very sad at not being invited to George Takei's wedding.

Except, according to Takei, he was.

I wanted to do the thing where it posts in the Youtube clip but I'm having a few technical issues at the moment - I'll get it sorted in the next few days.

Palin for 2012? Oh please... Bring It On.

Woke up to the following headline in the Telegraph: Republicans 'considering' Sarah Palin 2012 presidential campaign.

Are these people insane? (Well, maybe - they are Republicans after all). Have they not seen the opinion polls on Palin which (after a brief 2 week positive blip) went massively negative?

Have they sat down and watched any of the completely incoherent Palin interviews, or that cheese-fest of a debate with Joe Biden?

It would seem to me that Palin is the least suitable candidate the Republicans could choose for a 2012 presidential run. She would only be able to win if Obama makes such a hash of things in office that anybody could win on the Republican side - and even then she could easily turn a landslide victory into a narrow defeat. The Democrats (and many others) hate her. Even more so than Bush - she takes most of the worst aspects of Bush and amplifies them about six hundred times. Bush said a lot of dumb things but he never said that he had foreign policy experience because you could see Russia from Alaska on a clear day.

With Palin's combination of extreme ignorance and extreme arrogance, plus the deteriorating world economic situation (if it really is an extreme slump) there is every possibility that America could be drawn into nuclear conflict between 2013 and 2016.

And at the end of the day, that's what many of the Conservatives want. They want the Antichrist. They want Judgement Day.

But for all that I'm backing Palin as the Republican candidate for 2012. I can't think of anything that's more likely to guarantee re-election for President Obama and a strong Democratic majority in all houses of Congress.

My advice to anyone in the US reading this is this: if you have any Republican friends or associates (I guess it's just possible) I recommend that you spend the next 4 years 'bigging up' Sarah Palin. The more of a positive vibe you can generate for her, the better. If, by your actions, you can ensure that the Republican party fights the 2012 elections as an extremist rump, then that's wonderful news.

21 October 2008

Temporary breathing space?

Some good news on inter-bank lending rates over the last couple of days -they seem to be gradually trending down. But is this the end of the banking crisis, or just a breathing space?

For the pessimists among us, an interesting article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph a couple of days ago. "Almost every corner of the world is now being drawn into the vortex of debt deflation". Debt deflation is a theory originally invented by the economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s - the basic idea is that a crash in asset prices precipitates forced selling to cover debts, which reduces prices further, leading to more debt and more selling... etc. The details of the theory are described very clearly by Professor Steve Keen of the University of Western Sydney in his excellent book Debunking Economics. Professor Keen also has a blog looking at the specifics of the debt situation in Australia, which is a recommended read.

More big falls on the Asian stock markets last night - of course the general effect over the last month has been a rollercoaster rather than a straight downward path, but nonetheless the general trend is sharply down.

There's also a scary story from Eastern Europe: Hungary has raised interest rates 3 percent to maintain its currency peg against the Euro. A lot of Hungary's private sector borrowing (e.g. mortgage and car loans) is in foreign currencies (why?) and in these circumstances, a currency collapse of the Hungarian forint will raise the levels of Hungarian debt, exacerbating debt deflation. Other central and eastern European countries may be following suit soon.

Some good news when I manage to find it...

20 October 2008

Votes and the Voting Voters who Cast Them: Franken up in Minnesota

Things have been a bit dull on the national politics front both in the UK and US over the last few days. The problem with the kind of near-collapse of financial markets that we've seen over the last few weeks is that, once the euphoria/fear factor has died down and normal service is resumed, it all seems a bit of an anti climax. Especially for those of us who were sitting waiting for the crisis, and then The Revolution. : -)

As an interesting diversion, I thought I'd alert people that US comedian and writer Al Franken is running for the US Senate in Minnesota this year (as a Democrat, natch), and latest polling has Franken marginally ahead. His campaign seems to have been slightly erratic - like Joe the Plumber, there have been allegations that he owes a lot of unpaid income tax, voters were apparently turned off by negative campaigning on both sides (but especially from incumbent republican Norm Coleman, and there is a third party candidate (Dean Barkley) drawing about 20% in polls on an 'independence for Minnesota' platform!. But I really hope Al gets in - BBC Four did a documentary following him around on the 2004 campaign (where he wasn't running for office, just having arguments with various right-wingers) and it was a classic.

If you haven't read it, I can thoroughly recommend Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them - subtitled 'A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right' (parodying the Fox News slogan - and see 'Unfoxed' for the lowdown on that operation), it's an hilarious and razor-sharp attack on US right-wing pundits like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. In the UK you can normally avoid f***ers like this just by not reading the Mail, Express and the Telegraph (although at least most of the right-wingers in the Telegraph have a brain - excepting Janet Daley and Simon Heffer) but in the US they seem to be everywhere, although the decline of Republican fortunes makes them seem more shrill and pointless with each passing day.

16 October 2008

Rounding up Round Three

Watched the last of the presidential debates early on this morning (on Youtube here.)

A lot of it was re-treads of familiar ground, particularly from the first debate. McCain actually did better this time than in earlier rounds. It wasn't that his argument on the economy was particularly strong - it's just that he managed to connect it to a simple example which people could understand. He used a guy called "Joe the plumber", a small businessman Obama met on the campaign trail who was worried about tax increases. Obama should have countered that argument by saying that the US government is massively in deficit, hence someone's got to pay more tax to re-balance the budget (over the business cycle) and it sure as hell ain't gonna be the people at the bottom of the pile. "Joe the plumber" is actually a fair way up the income distribution (is he paying corporate tax or personal income tax? It was never made clear) - so even if he's struggling, he's in a better position to pay than people on lower incomes. Obama did make this point to a certain extent, but it could have been clearer. In general Obama seemed more sluggish than McCain early on, although it evened up as time went on.

The Ayers (ex-Weatherman who Obama was on a school board with) issue was raised by McCain but came off as a bit of a damp squib. The worst bit for McCain was when he was defending the people who came to his meetings - "the finest people in America - war veterans" or some such thing. Does being a war veteran excuse someone being a complete fascist who calls Obama a terrorist? Apparently so if you're John McCain. Obama should have pulled him up on that a bit more.

I think it came off pretty much even Stevens, but the post-debate polls showed that independents were more favourable to Obama. That may be because Obama was more 'centrist' (detractors would say more vague) and less combative, whereas McCain was energising the Republican base but not really getting across to the swing voters. Or it may just have been that people haven't watched the debate and are just backing the person they think is gonna win.

Either way, there is no way this debate was a "game-changer", and it wasn't really worth staying up for, either. Definitely a case of quantity over quality in these debates. Having said that, it's nice to have something of this kind - we don't have anything like this in UK general elections despite frequent attempts to set one up, which is a real shame.

15 October 2008

Boris the Keynesian?

A surprising article in the Telegraph yesterday by Boris Johnson, sounding like Old Labour , if anything. Get this:

We will beat this recession more speedily, and emerge in far better shape, if we make sure we put people to work in projects that boost the long-term competitiveness of the country.

That means investing in the things that can radically improve the transport, attractiveness and general liveability of the capital city, the motor of the British economy. We may be in a hole, but the lesson of history is that tunnels and bridges and dams can bring jobs and growth.

Is this the same buffoon who somehow managed to win the London mayor election? Well yes, probably, as Boris has probably realised he's unlikely to get re-elected if unemployment in London has sky-rocketed by 2012 and all he can do (other than handing out free tickets to the London Olympics for the unemployed) is tell people to get "on their bike".

But when Boris Johnson is making the case for Keynesian infrastructure spending to combat the slump, you know the political battleground has shifted.

So who's left in the rapidly shrinking camp of balanced budgets, fiscal rectitude, and the position the Americans are calling 'neo-Hooverism' - conspiring to prolong the slowdown by reducing demand for goods and services at the point the economy can least take it? That's right, it's our old friend Simon Heffer again:

The orgy of borrowing over which Alistair Darling now presides and which some Tories wish to continue — such as the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who recklessly calls for continued spending on capital projects for the capital that, pending economic revival, cannot be afforded — must end.

Nice use of "capital" twice in one sentence, there, but otherwise an intellectually negligible contribution. In the same article, Heffer recommends John Redwood - Klingon and one-time Tory leadership challenger - for the Shadow Chancellor post. This guy must have bubbles on the brain or something. I will have to resist the urge to post any more from Heffer this side of Christmas, as you good people need something intelligent to read, not rehashed monetarist bullshit.

Stock markets tanked again today - no real surprise, as the fact that the world economy's been saved from sudden death doesn't mean that it won't still face a long period in intensive care. Never thought I'd say this, but Boris Johnson is right: time to dig out those big public transport projects and borrow to pay for them.

Someone should make Gordon Brown a really big credit card - like those big cheques you get if you raise a large sum of money for charity. It would be a good gimmick at the next Budget.

Elmer Fudd in the last chance saloon

Just been over to fivethirtyeight - a regular virtual stopping post of mine - and the polling data goes from bad to worse for John McCain.

The site has a model based on state and national level poll data which runs 10,000 simulations - I think on some kind of Monte-Carlo basis using random draws from the statistical distribution of outcomes for each poll (with polls weighted according to the quality of the pollsters' methodology). Anyway, currently they predict that Obama is 95.8% likely to win the electoral college. That's pretty good odds.

If the prospect of a Republican victory wasn't so terrifying right now (OK, they'd be massively hemmed in by a Democratic Congress, but McCain could still declare as many wars as he likes) I'd be feeling a bit sorry for McCain. Based on polling from the Republican primaries he was probably his party's best bet for a win this year. Huckabee, for example, would probably be 30 points down in the polls by now if he'd won the nomination. But he has to contend with fascist extremists at every rally. Many commentators (apart from the BBC's Justin Webb, who is desperate to pretend it's still a close race out there - for reasons I don't pretend to understand) have given up on him - even on his own side. And Sarah Palin, who initially appeared to be an inspired choice of running mate, has turned out to be a liability, with a sequence of interview gaffes that makes George W Bush look like a master of the English language. She's also massively energised the Democratic hardcore, who hate her guts in a way it's tough to feel about McCain.

Also, McCain looks - and SOUNDS - more and more like Elmer Fudd from the Bugs Bunny cartoons with each passing day. Maybe when he referred to Obama as "that one" he meant to say "dat dirty wabbit".

McFudd's last chance of getting back into this race could be tonight's final presidential debate. On paper, he hasn't got a lot going for him. The 'town hall' format of the second debate was meant to favour McCain, but in the end he didn't do any better than in the first debate. Of course, anything could happen, but I think barring a Gerald Ford-like clanger from Obama, he's home and dry...

...except if there is some major threat to national security over the last 3 weeks of this campaign. Another bombing? A bin Laden videotape (as occurred just before the 2004 election?) It's easy to be dismissed as a conspiracy theorist for bringing this kind of stuff up, but the possibility is always there. Of course, if Obama is far enough ahead, a slight swing back to McCain on the back of "terror" fears won't be enough (barring truly massive levels of electoral fraud.) Still, it pays to be cautious. Playing dirty doesn't really seem to have worked for McCain, so, like Windom Earle in Twin Peaks (an interesting comparison) he may have to start "playing off the board".

13 October 2008

More moronic commentators

On a slightly different note, I heard perhaps the weakest defence of the "no-bailout" position yet today from Tim Congdon of Lombard Street Research. It was down there with Simon Heffer in the lameness stakes. Big props to me old mate "Foley" for finding this one - it was on the World at One, which I don't listen to much (normally having an afternoon nap around then).

Congdon essentially said that the government had stolen the banks from the shareholders. Effectively he accused the govt of creating the crisis to drive down bank share prices and then nationalising once prices fell below a certain threshold. The same accusations were levied at Tony Benn when he was Industry Secretary for the Labour Government in 1974 (not for banks but for other industries). It was b.s. then and it's b.s. now. Shareholders will actually gain a lot from this deal relative to what they would have had in the absence of the deal (which is little or nothing, as the banks would have gone bust, like Lehman Brothers). The Congdon interview will be available for the next few days from BBC iPlayer (World at One, 13 October - about 11 minutes in) but I couldn't find a permanent link on the web at the moment, unfortunately.

However, you can download some equally moronic commentary from Lombard Street's podcast page. There's 9 minutes of doggy-doo from a guy called Jamie Dannhauser (who looks about 17) which I couldn't find a direct link to, but it's called 'UK bank bailout - necessary help or dangerous govt interference?' Just guess which of those options Jamie puts his money on. The analysis is hackneyed 80s Thatcherite pro-deregulation, pro-private sector rubbish - exactly the kind of crap that got us into this mess.

See, that's why the arguments are so easy to win for the left at the moment - any time a right winger tries to argue with you, just point out the current economic crisis and the (Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite) policies that got us there. It's like shooting fish in a barrel at the moment out there. On Channel 4 news today, Labour left-winger John McDonnell totally annihilated an ex-director of Bradford and Bingley over the question of whether there should be democratic control of banking remuneration - because listening to a guy from Bradford and Bingley giving his opinions on the way out of the crisis is like getting advice from George Bush over how to stay popular in politics. They are busted flushes.

It won't always be this easy, but after 25 years when the neo-liberals seemed to be in the ascendancy most of the time, it's nice to watch these guys squirming around a bit.

A day long remembered

As Darth Vader says in Star Wars, "this will be a day long remembered". Most likely, anyway.

It's seen:

Gordon Brown now has some pretty solid ammunition to use when painting himself as the saviour of the British economy in these trying times - a Nobel prize winner in economics says the British plan is a good 'un. Those props to Brown just get bigger and bigger every day.

Of course, the whole caboodle now hinges on whether the economy can now resume some semblance of 'normality'. Well the Dow Jones has gone back up, but of course you should never place much importance on any single day's trading - come back in six months and see what the indices look like then. The main issue is how severe the oncoming recession turns out to be. If it's just a severe recession - the politicians done well. If it's a severe slump - you can kick their asses.

12 October 2008

McCain scrapes the bottom of the barrel and digs up some nasty bacteria...

With John McCain well behind in current polling with only just over 3 weeks to go, it's no surprise that his campaign is trying to play dirty. Just how dirty is a real worry.

Last week Sarah Palin was let off the leash to say that Obama was 'palling around with terrorists' (that's "pal-ing" rather than "palling" or "Palin", for those of you who've previously been confused by Palin's loose command of American English). The specific story is that Obama was on a public committee with a guy called Ayers who was once in a 60s/70s left-wing terrorist group called the Weathermen. None of this is new - it all came out earlier in the campaign. And by the time Obama knew Ayers he was long past being a terrorist.

But the specifics of the Ayers case aren't the real point of the exercise. The point of the exercise (and of McCain's phrase "that one" used to describe Obama in the second presidential debate last week) is to increase the "otherness" of Obama. To make him seem more 'un-American' and therefore more dangerous to swing voters who are receptive to Obama's general policy line (and particularly his economic policies) but worried about this guy with a weird name, who perhaps seems a bit of a risk. It's what the Tories in their 2005 UK election campaign called a 'dog whistle' strategy.

Except that the dog whistle is being heard by another group of voters who aren't swing voters by any means... but rabid right-wing lunatics.

If you do a search on YouTube for "McCain rally extremism" you'll find some worrying stuff. For example, here there are people shouting out "terrorist" and "kill him!" when McCain mentions Obama. There are plenty more examples like that.

McCain did speak out this weekend at one rally to say that Obama was a "nice family man" and didn't deserve these kinds of offensive insults from the crowd. But that was only one rally out of dozens.

I don't think John McCain thinks Barack Obama is a terrorist, but by failing to stamp on this stuff as hard as he possibly can, he's in danger of opening a very nasty can of worms - as veteran civil rights hero and Congressman John Lewis has pointed out.

There's a lot of worry on sites like FiveThirtyEight that Obama is in danger of being assassinated on the campaign trail. I'm not sure if this is an exaggerated fear or not because I don't know how well presidential candidates are protected. I assume that because George Bush has survived 8 years (almost), presidents are well protected, but I don't know enough about candidates. The people who aren't protected, though, are the many thousands of Obama workers on the ground. It's quite possible that someone might get beaten up, stabbed or shot by some of these Republican extremist goons. And if that were to happen, there would be a good case for saying that McCain was to blame.

Thank f*** there are only 3 weeks of this campaign left 'cos it looks like it could turn VERY nasty out there. It would be very nice to see Barack get through to polling day in one piece. After which, of course, the REAL danger starts. As many people have already pointed out, the extreme right in the US hated Clinton, who was a triangulating centre-right winger. So, given that Obama is perceived by the right-wingers as more radical, imagine what they are gonna try to do to him. Frankin Roosevelt was the subject of an attempted fascist coup: any bets against it this time round?

10 October 2008

Nutters, real nutters and Simon Heffer

It's the end of the week and posting frequency has been pretty good these last few weeks - with any luck I'll soon be able to resurrect Hal's Friday evening blog review, last seen in 2006 or thereabouts.

But for now, with stock indices tumbling yet again today, I thought I'd take an opportunity to draw your attention some of the crap that's being written about the crisis from a select few right-wing media hacks.

I want to be fair here: a lot of the right wing have realised that, for the moment, the game is up for the capitalist system, and - at least temporarily - we need socialised banking, or at least some element of it, to survive. For example, normally annoying Telegraph economics commentators like Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Jeff Randall have been reconciling themselves to the new paradigm. They don't particularly like where we've ended up, but they realise that not implementing any kind of bail-out package in the US or UK would have been far worse.

That may be hard to accept at the end of one of the worst weeks in stock market history, but it certainly could be much worse. Were it not for the bailouts we'd probably be looking like the Icelandic economy right now.

For some on the right though, even grudging acceptance of a role for the state is too much. Dominic Lawson, in the Independent today, was laughable, lambasting Gordon Brown for encouraging 'the boom in housing and the opening up of the mortgage market' whilst conveniently forgetting that it was actually his beloved Mrs Thatcher that started the whole shebang rolling in the eighties. But of course under the Tory government, banks only lent to responsible customers - so that nineties crash never happened... silly me.

Even more amusingly, Lawson blames the US subprime crisis not on lax regulation under the Bush administration, greedy lenders, or Alan Greenspan's low interest rate policy, but... Jimmy Carter. Apparently his "Community Reinvestment Act" forced banks to lend disproportionately to low income neighbourhoods. And of course, the 20 years of Republican adminstrations since Carter was booted out in 1980 have been unable to make any alterations to this policy? This is desperate blame-the-loony-left crapola journalism reheated from the eighties, and shows the sheer dearth of ideas on the hard Tory right.

Of course, one drawback of believing the market is always right is that if it does fail - and fail catastrophically - you've got very little to fall back on. You can blame the regulators - except that they were doing exactly what you told them to, which was to cut back on regulation. It's not a good time to be a right winger at the moment.

That explains why we have the normally confident Guido Fawkes - never the brightest LED in the 70s digital watch when it comes to economics - reduced to a sad whimper of "where have all the capitalists gone?" on his blog today. Guido mate - they've all either (a) pissed off to the Cayman islands with the big bonuses they got before the going got tough; or (b) they understand a little basic economics and realise that if the banking system fails, it could make the 1930s look like a mild slowdown. It gets funnier though... Guido quotes Simon Heffer approvingly as "the lone strident capitalist tool" left in the media.

Well the tool part of that is right... recommending Simon Heffer's writings on economics is a bit like recommending Fanny Craddock as a model for today's gastropub cooks, or Joe Kinnear as the future of England football management. The guy is a bit like a cross between Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph on crystal meth, a "new right" hack preserved in aspic from the early 80s. By now he is probably the last person on earth who thinks that monetarism was a good idea and that Thatcher had it about right in 1979. He is an economic ignoramus who should really be too embarrassed of his own lack of knowledge to keep bringing it up in his comment pieces, but like a Big Brother contestant, he just can't help exposing himself at the worst moments. His piece "we are all socialists now" is the most laughable nonsense written by anyone in a British newspaper this year - it makes Lawson look like Larry Elliott.

The idea that because the banks were given an injection of capital by the government (without which the banking system would have almost certainly collapsed within weeks, if not days) we are now living in a pre-1989 Soviet bloc economic system is the most laughable piece of hyperbolic distortion I have ever encountered in the British press. Really, it's amazing that this guy even has a contract to write for a newspaper. I'm glad he does in a way, because I'm all for an easy target - especially at 10.30 on Friday evening.

The final lunacy is when Heffer approvingly quotes the American libertarian writer Ayn Rand. The same Ayn Rand whom Alan Greenspan (one of the architects of the crisis according to many on both left and right was great friends with. "The difference between a welfare state and a totalitarian state is a matter of time..." Yeah, right. The difference between Simon Heffer and a complete imbecile is non-existent.

It would be great fun to plunge Heffer into a parallel universe where his peculiar vision of free market capitalism reigned supreme - where the banks hadn't been bailed out, and civilisation had collapsed into anarchy. He'd enjoy that. No nasty government to tell him what to do. I doubt he'd survive long though. Lots of people don't like him, there would be no police around to protect him, and like many of us in journalism and the blogosphere, he's not the fittest person around - probably because he spends most of his time on the computer finding more evidence for what a bad person Gordon Brown is. And of course, without government, what's left except survival of the fittest? Good luck, fatboy.

The nuclear option?

No, I don't mean dropping a bomb on Iceland - although the UK government rapidly seems to be moving towards tougher measures where those pesky Icelanders are concerned. "What do you mean, the country's bankrupt? We need £20 billion of British money now!

I mean what the f*** to do about the paralysis of financial markets. It's obviously very early days since the UK bailout package was announced; slightly longer since the US package was announced. But so far the signs are not good. According to the Telegraph,

yesterday there were few signs that Mr Brown's bail-out gamble was paying off... there was little evidence that banks were prepared to lend to each other and no British bank has requested any of the £50 billion available.

If this statis persists into next week, there may be only one option left to the UK government: complete nationalisation of the UK banking system. Following the principle "if you want something done... do it yourself."

The logic is obvious. Capitalism can't function without bank lending. So if the banks won't lend, the government has to do the lending for them. The Bank of England could - theoretically - do this directly, but it doesn't have the infrastructure or the personnel to do that. Private sector banks do. Therefore, private sector banks should - for a period of time - become public sector banks, under direct control of HM Treasury.

Once the crisis has been averted and stock market and housing prices start to rise, the government can sell them off again (properly regulated, of course, to prevent another crazy bubble happening like we've had for the past decade). And the taxpayer will make a big profit.

It seems to me that unless banks start lending in the next few days, this is the only way to go - unless some kind of huge international bail-out is organised, like Paul Krugman suggests. But can that happen? Europe can't even organise its own collective bailout. It's every country for herself out there.

So maybe it's time to stop pissing about and carry out that 1983 Labour Manifesto in full. Michael Foot was right all along... and future generations will thank us for it.

09 October 2008

Krugman: big props to Brown (the puppeteer)

Big support for the UK bailout plan from Paul Krugman today. He does refer to it as the 'Brown plan' (together with a great double thumbs-up picture of Gordon), which Alistair Darling probably won't be too happy about. But then, from the picture it's pretty clear who's pulling the strings.

One is reminded of Martin Landau as Bela Legosi in the brilliant Ed Wood:

"Pull the string! Pull the string!"

08 October 2008

US electoral fraud - could it swing things?

I'm not going to report yet on the second US presidential debate, as I haven't had time to watch it yet. For what it's worth, post-debate polling numbers look very similar to the first debate, i.e. Obama a modest winner. And that wasn't good enough for McCain, who needed a big win.

Or did he? Last night's newsnight had a piece by Greg Palast, author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, examining the extent of electoral fraud in the US. Really frightening stuff, including such horrors as the following:

  • huge numbers of (mainly low income and/or African American) voters turning up at the polls only to find that they weren't registered to vote. This was especially likely to happen in states like Colorado, with a Republican Secretary of State.
  • Voters whose houses have been foreclosed (i.e. repossessed) being disenfranchised
  • Voter intimidation at the polling station (which is apparently legal in some forms in the US - what the hell?)
  • shortages of voting machines in polling stations in low-income neighbourhoods
  • rigging of electronic voting machines (many of which have no 'audit trail', i.e. no means of establishing whether the votes counted tally with the votes actually cast.)
  • new legislation requiring photo ID for people to be able to vote - people in the US without any form of photo-ID (e.g. no passport or driving licence) are overwhelmingly from the poorest section of the population.

Greg Palast has several earlier short films for the BBC on his website, so hopefully this one will be put up there soon, as it's a must-view. The big questions arising from this are:

  1. How much worse is voter fraud now than in 2004, when it is widely acknowledged to have cost John Kerry the election?
  2. Given that it looks like (hopefully) Obama will be a lot further ahead this time in terms of voting intentions than Kerry was in 2004 (or Gore in 2000) how much fraud would there need to be to 'flip' the result to McCain?
In the comments on the fivethirtyeight website I found a link to this site which claims to reveal "a [Republican] plan to steal the next election by 51.2% of the popular vote and three [electoral college] votes."

Also something even more extraordinary: an interview with a Republican "cyber-security expert" who claims that foreign hacking of voting machines could decide the election... watch that one here. I haven't had time to watch it yet but will do soon.

One thing seems obvious: the exit polls from the 2004 election was pretty close between Bush and Kerry - and although it was surprising that a number of swing states went to Bush, the overall reported share of the vote was not that far out of line with what was predicted. It was a real bummer, but it took some time for the truth to emerge that the election was rigged. And by then it was too late.

By contrast, if Obama is (say) 8% in front in the polling in the run up to election day, but the actual votes show a 2% lead for McCain, it is very likely that all hell will break loose. At the very least you could see large-scale civil disobedience, and in the most extreme scenario, civil war. I hope that Greg Palast Newsnight film gets shown in the US before polling day, so that people know what they're up against.

07 October 2008

Towards mass nationalisation of the financial sector... welcome, Comrade Treasury.

Great news kids... we're all about to become bank financiers, courtesy of £50bn(? sum as yet unconfirmed) from the UK Government. Partial nationalisation, in other words. At least we're getting 'em pretty cheap... although it'd probably be a better deal for the taxpayer if we waited for them to get to the brink of insolvency and then picked them off one by one. That seems to be the Icelandic strategy at any rate.

The way they've performed under private ownership, it may well make sense to hang on to 'em in the public sector for a while. Or indeed permanently. Just don't let McKinseys and the other management consultants loose on them the way they've been allowed to run riot in the NHS.... aaarrrgh.

Well, we shall have to see whether this latest bail-out fares any better than the US bail-out, which . The rule book is being rewritten at the moment.... and by people who only vaguely speak the language. That is, HM Treasury, who spent the last ten years (and indeed decades before that) arguing for free-market economic policies. Yes folks, HMT is now leading the drive towards a socialist UK - parallelling our friends in the US, where Paulson and Bernanke are leading the revolution.

As I said a few weeks back, Jon Voight was almost right when he said that Obama would introduce socialism in the US - except that George W Bush got there before him.

Today's 1970s LP choice: "Crisis? What Crisis?" by Supertramp. Seemed appropriate somehow.

06 October 2008

OK, now the "bailout" has arrived, we can get on with the crash

New lows in the stock market today... a record 1-day percentage fall in the FTSE 100. The BBC headline is instructive: "stocks slide despite reassurances."

Perhaps because the reassurances were coming from the likes of Angela Merkel, Alistair Darling, the government of Iceland, and of course the US Government.

We have got to the stage that William Burroughs in The Naked Lunch called 'that frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.' People have realised that b.s. is b.s. and there is no real reason to believe any economics minister in any government in the developed world.

Jon Snow on Channel 4 News looked to be really enjoying himself (and that's not meant as a negative remark at all - Jon is great.) Just being able to have a steady stream of interviewees in the report footage and in the studio saying, "we haven't a clue when it's going to end." Even the economic collapse of the mid-70s doesn't have anything on this.

More and more financial institutions - and other companies - are having to be rescued by national governments every day. The UK government is now seriously considering partial nationalisation of the entire UK banking system. It's intervention on a level that Tony Benn never got anywhere near in the 70s.

Is it frightening? Yes, certainly. But seeing the Reagan/Thatcher economic model that we've been following for the last 30 years unravelling so quickly and so completely is not an unpleasant experience. The only problem, of course, is what we replace it with. And that now becomes the really big issue for what now looks increasingly like it's going to be an incoming Obama adminstration in the US. (So far there's little evidence they've thought about this - which is very worrying. But that's an issue for another day).

In the EU, who the hell knows what's going to happen. The two different perspectives I've identified from media commentators are:

1. The crisis could fracture the Euro and maybe the EU itself (Larry Elliott says this for instance);
2. The crisis could lead to an expanded EU with greater powers (at the extreme, a federal Europe). For example, it looks like Iceland is now desperate to join... and if the pound collapses, the UK could be forced into the Euro.

So it's the big crash, folks. (Of course stocks may bounce tomorrow, but in the current climate that won't last for long. Casino capitalism is crumbling to dust, and this is the biggest opportunity for the left (and unfortunately for the extreme right) since the 1930s. The only problem is working out exactly what the f*** is going on enough to work out (in turn) what to do about it. Good luck, everybody.

05 October 2008

Just when you thought Brown was digging his way out of a hole...

...He puts Peter Mandelson back in the cabinet.

Lunacy, just plain lunacy.

The best news from the reshuffle was that Digby Jones was bailing out. He should never have been there in the first place, of course, but it's reassuring all the same.

Also, Andrew Adonis, who has done his best to wreck the UK education system over the last ten years, goes to transport - presumably on the basis that the UK transport network is so terminally f***ed that he can't do any more damage there.

Likewise, John Hutton has been moved to a real cabinet turkey - defence. It's a really interesting question which of Mandelson or Hutton is worse. I think Hutton's probably worse, if only because he speaks with the zeal of the true convert to neo-liberal economics. Mandelson has been in the right-wing camp for far longer, and so may have had some time to reflect on the idiocy of his beliefs. We can but hope.

Ed Miliband steps in as the Secretary of State for a new department - Energy and Climate Change. In general I think the more power to Ed the better (no pun intended) as he is one of the best people in the Cabinet and could be good as a future leader. However there are dangers in this position for him. He'll be pushing (whether by choice or not) a deeply unpopular programme of new nuclear power stations and the inevitable public backlash could cause him big problems. On the other hand he will be able to push for renewables and (hopefully) against coal, so it's not all bad news.

One overall comment: this 'all hands on deck' schtick is really beginning to bug me. We've heard it from Mandelson, Brown, Cameron and anyone even vaguely involved with the US Government. And the net result is that the economy is still collapsing - just a little slower than it would have done otherwise. No-one really seems to have grasped the fact that the game plan which has defined the last 30 years - the belief that deregulation, free markets and maniac capitalism woud secure perpetual prosperity for the western world (and converts from the east) is very close to being over. It's like we're still trying to play football, but the playing field has been tilted through 90 degrees, and we haven't realised we'll need a pick-axe and climbing spikes to stay on it.

Given that pretty much all hands failed to anticipate the kind of mess we find ourselves in (the only exceptions I can think of are Guardian chief economist Larry Elliott and UCLA Marxist historian Robert Brenner), add a load of clueless people together and you get the same result as adding a bunch of zeroes (i.e. zero).

The 'big tent' strategy has been a disaster for Brown. It's emasculated his political campaigning and made it impossible to drop the tarnished legacy of Tony Blair. The departure of Ruth Kelly, with no ill-effects whatsoever, should have been a clue to the way forward; dump the dorks, and kick some Tory ass. Instead we have welcomed back the enemy within... Mandelson. Maybe I'm wrong and the guy is a genius who will mastermind another election victory. But remember that's what Blair thought about Alan Milburn in the run-up to 2005, and where is Milburn now? (Don't answer that one... we'll probably find next week that he's back in the cabinet.